Sungai Siput: One year after

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Even after winning elections, there is still much work to be done in transforming local communities. Jeyakumar Devaraj shares with us his experience in Sungai Siput, where he and his team are trying to go beyond welfare work and instead work towards empowering the people.

Winning the Sg Siput seat was an unexpected event. We had expected that we would be able to narrow the difference of votes between us and Dato Seri Samy Vellu. But the swing in the non-Malay votes was far more than we had expected and as the 8th of March progressed, and we began seeing the preliminary returns from our counting agents, we realised that a victory was possible.

Welfare work?

Victory was chaotic. There was a deluge of requests for help. Initially, I was getting more than 120 specific requests for help each week. It’s far more than can be handled by one person. But things have settled down somewhat – we have three full-timers who now are able to handle more and more of these cases. Also perhaps the unrealistic expectations that many of these problems can be solved instantaneously have ameliorated to an extent. Nevertheless, individual cases still take up a fair portion of our workload.

I personally received 130 such cases in January and February of 2009. The table below categorises the cases, and does not include those seen and settled by our full-timers.

The high volume of these cases, and the amount of time it takes for them to be handled has led to a lot of soul-searching in the branch. Is this what we won this seat for – to do welfare work? Aren’t we supposed to build the people’s movement instead of arranging hand-outs? This has been a recurrent theme of discussion in the Sg Siput party and I will return to it later.

Individual cases received: Jan – Feb 2009

Cases    Number
Request for financial help      26
Medical problems      21
Socso      20
Legal help      13
House problems      10
BC/IC      10
Drains/Street lights     6
Job related     7
Passport/Foreign spouse     9
Conversion / “Interfaith”     3
Others     9
TOTAL     134

Floods in Tok Sirat

Kg Tok Sirat, a settlement set up by the government to house 30 poor families from the Sg Siput constituency, suffered floods 16 times last year – and we are talking of flood waters coming into the houses. The first time it happened I was away, and other party members went to visit. They were asked, “Aren’t you going to give us any money? Dato Seri used to give us RM300 each time.”

Of course not having any allocation from the government or from the party itself, we were not in a position to do so. Malays are generally a polite people, but it was clear that the Tok Sirat residents were unhappy.

We got the maps, and looked into the problem. It quickly became clear to us that this was not an “act of God”. Recurrent flooding of Tok Sirat was due to siltation of the Sg Pelus, a tributary of the Perak River. The hinterland of the Sg Pelus has been extensively logged for the past 40 years.

We met with JPS (the department in charge of the rivers). They agreed that siltation is the major cause. They told us that they had applied for RM12.6 million to dredge the Sg Pelus, but this was not approved for the 2008 budget nor the 2009 budget.(Budget allocation is from the federal government.)  Wasn’t there a fund set up by the state government to handle environmental problems occasioned by logging, we asked. After all, the state government received royalties for umpteen years. Zilch. No one had thought that far ahead!

We then met with the Land Office and proposed that since the river could not be deepened in the near future, perhaps we should offer the badly affected families – numbering about 70 from six villages on the banks of Sg Pelus – alternative sites to build houses. The Land Office agreed to this proposal. (The fact that it was a Pakatan-led state govrenment probably played a part!)

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We then held meetings with the six affected kampungs. People quite readily could accept our analysis that it was poor planning and neglect that had led to their flooding: many would talk about how the river is now so muddy and how so few fish are left compared to before; the floods were much more infrequent 20 years ago, they said. Of course, being socialist activists, we would offer the analysis that the rich loggers had made the profits, the government had earned and spent the royalties, but the poor villagers are the ones paying the cost of development.

We then organised a signature campaign asking the Menteri Besar to stop logging in the hinterland of the Sg Pelus. The petition also asked that the state government immediately put funds for river deepening work. The petition with several hundred signatures was handed in to the PR Menteri Besar in December 2008.

Tok Sirat managed to identify government land adjacent to their kampung. The Land Office agreed. We then formed a committee to source funds to help them build the alternative houses. We were supposed to take them to see the MB in January 09 – but then there was a coup!

Welfare work vs organising work

I have been using the example of Tok Sirat within party discussions as an example of how, what initially was a request for a quick cash hand-outs can be turned around into a programme that educates the people that development is skewed towards the rich and well-connected and then mobilises them around efforts to address their problems. The mobilisation will build their self-confidence and group cohesion. The whole process is part of the party’s goal of building a peoples’ movement.

My challenge to the party members is – can you discern the systemic causes that have made this particular poor individual come to us for a hand-out? Can we group people with a similar problem  and work together with them to solve (at least partially) their problem? How effectively can we transmute “welfare” work into a programme that can empower people and create independent structures of the people?

The jaringans (networks)

In very much a similar way, we have set up seven other networks, bringing together communities facing similar problems. All have interesting stories of their own, but I do not intend to detail them in this report. The basic details of these networks are listed in the table below to give a flavour of the kinds of issues that we are dealing with.

The recent change in the political equation will definitely have an impact on the growth and consolidation of these networks. Take Tok Sirat for example, taking me or any party member along when going to meet the new Zambry state government to ask for funds would probably jeopardise their chances! And in any case we would not want to go and see this new fellow as that would amount to an endorsement of him as the MB.

It is therefore quite probable that the communities that require government help in terms of funds or grant approvals might want to re-align themselves. I have put forward the analysis to our team that corruption and self-serving behaviour is so deeply interred in the bones of the BN leaders that there is an even chance that some of the communities will have to turn back to us to help them fight-back an attempt by the new BN leadership to shortchange them – and this is more likely to occur for the vegetable farmers, the urban pioneers and the retrenched workers. But there is no doubting it – the loss of the PR government in Perak will impinge on our work in Sg Siput.

Networks of affected communities:

Network    Malay Kampungs asking for land / grant
Issue    Five such kampungs
Notes    Had a seminar to discuss how they could develop the land without being cheated by middle men

Network    Vegetable Farmers –  six areas
Issue    450 vegetable farmers being threatened with
eviction
Notes    Police reports. Letter to the Land Office and to the MB. Formation of a committee

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Network    Orang Asli in Lasah
Issue    Reps from 24 kampungs have attended our meetings
Notes    Five meetings in Ulu Lasah. Visit to land schemes being run by OA communities in other places

Network    Orang Asli In Jalong Tinggi
Issue    Reps from six kampungs have been coming
Notes    Three meetings. Participated in visit

Network    Urban Pioneers
Issue    Four areas
Notes    Committees have been formed in each area. Surveys have been done. Land office has agreed to settle the issue.

Network    Housing estates
Issue    Five areas facing problems due to poor construction
Network    Workers network
Issue    To monitor the effect of the economic downturn
Notes    Just formed.

Feedback to the rakyat

We believe that we should promote dialogue with the voters of Sg Siput. But given the vastness of the constituency that is easier said than done. Let me enumerate the efforts that we have taken in this direction:

1.    The Jaringan meetings are a way to meet with certain sections of the population.

2.    We have come out with multilingual bulletins giving brief details of our work. There have been two editions so far. These have been printed by the thousands and distributed free to the people of Sg Siput. .

3.    We have come out with a pamphlet detailing our efforts to procure the federal constituency fund of RM500,000 for 2008, which was supposed to be made available to all constituencies. Of course our request was turned down!

4.    We have held meetings in the town hall of three new villages in an attempt to meet the Chinese community. The turnout has not been too encouraging.

5.    I am coming out with a set of the speeches I made during the debate on the 2009 budget in November and December 2008 – I spoke a total of 12 times, and the speeches constitute a small 55-page book. The plan is to translate it into three languages and make it available to as many voters as possible.

6.    We try and use the Press, but are not particularly successful. Perhaps they find me rather boring! I remember in the first session of Parliament, a few Indian reporters approached me and asked what my plan for the Indian community was. I replied that I was not an MP specifically for the Indian community – that there are a lot of Malays and Chinese and Orang Asli in Sg Siput as well. They were not too happy with the stand. Also, I suppose I am not too interesting to cover as I do not get into name-calling arguments with the BN people.

Finances

It is quite expensive to service the constituency. Until now, I have not received any allocation at all from the federal government nor from the state government for constituency work – not a single cent!

My total income as a parliamentarian is RM15,000 per month – this includes everything, parliament attendance allowances, driver’s salary, etc. Of this, I take RM5,000 for my personal use – slightly lower than what I used to earn in my laid-back medical practice which is now barely keeping afloat as I have cut my days there drastically!

The balance of RM10,000 is not quite enough to maintain an office, pay three full-timers, print the pamphlets and book, pay for seminars for farmers and students, and study tours for the Orang Asli. We are tight financially, but somehow do manage – our volunteers and the full-timers use their own money for many expenses and refrain from claiming.

I have on occasions approached friends to help out in specific cases –
•    wheelchairs for a few needy people,
•    a special motorbike for an old man with a stroke,
•    tuition assistance for a girl taking a pharmacy course (the child of a single mother),
•    tuition classes for seven kids who did not go to school because they did not have a birth certificate (we have managed to register them in school and are subsidising their tuition after school hours), etc.

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We have set up a small welfare fund for this kind of expenses which comes not from my parliamentary income, but from generous friends. If any of those who helped out with contributions are reading this, thanks for your help. We want to avoid becoming the Santa Claus here – that disempowers people! But sometimes, when the need is acute, we still have to respond. I will be sending out detailed accounts of how this welfare fund was deployed to all those who contributed.

Has it been worth it?

It has been hectic – a lot of demands. Despite all the effort our team has put in, we still get  comments such as “Hardly see you!” “You have never come to *** Taman”. It is difficult to please everyone, especially those who expect one to be able to hand out cash each time.

But at the same time being the MP gives one fantastic access to the community and to local government. For a social activist, access to the community is all important – that is the first step to building a people’s movement!

Also being the MP gives you a platform to speak from. People tend to take you more seriously because you are an MP – though I really do not see why that should be so! You are the same person, with the same weaknesses you had prior to winning the seat – but there is an irrational belief on the part of the Malaysian population that one suddenly is transformed into a higher form of human life by winning a seat in Parliament. I think it just reflects the extent feudal attitudes still permeate our society!

Overall, I am moderately satisfied with what we have been able to do in Sg Siput. For me, the biggest achievements include:

•    Establishing a working style that is not dependent on hand-outs. We have been able to find ways to be of relevance to peoples’ problems despite not having excess to mega funds.
•    Moving towards the establishment of people’s power (the networks) to address the problems faced by the population. This is much more liberating for the people concerned.
•    Developing the capacity of the branch. The full-timers have developed: they now can handle a large number of the issues themselves and report to me afterwards. There was a danger that the volunteer members – the majority of the party members – would be left out of the work, given the rapid pace of programmes. But we have implemented steps to share responsibility for the various specific programmes with the ordinary members.
•    Promoting the image of a simple, approachable, non-feudal Member of Parliament.

The coming year will be interesting. The loss of state power will definitely affect our work. But we will be operating in far better conditions than in 2000-2007. We hold the parliamentary seat, and that is something. The party’s capacity has been augmented with new members and full-timers. Also, we have a network of Ketua Kampungs who, despite being elected by the kampung people for two-year terms, will probably be sidelined and marginalised by the Umno government. How do we use these factors to move our work forward? Proper analysis and planning coupled with diligent implementation should see the programme developing in the coming year.

Jeyakumar Devaraj is the Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput

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